The wrongness of lying

The often-cited reason not to lie concerns the harm or negative consequences lying tends to bring. This is something that both the consequentialists and deontologists agree on. Consequentialists would say since lying typically generates more harm than good, lying should be prohibited. However, consequentialists do not go so far to claim that lying is wrong in all circumstances.  When it is necessary for producing the greatest good for the greatest amount of people, consequentialism would even endorse lying.

Deontologists, on the other hand, say lying has intrinsic moral significance that makes it wrong in all circumstances.  This is not to say it is never justified; lying is justified when an alternative would be “more wrong”.  However, even when justified, lying remains wrong – there remains a constraint against lying, the violation of which constitutes doing something wrong.  I wish to talk about how such a constraint against lying can be justified. 

Simply put, lying is making an untrue statement with the intention to deceive. This definition tells us two things.  (1) Lying involves doing – the act of ‘telling’. By asserting X, one invites a particular belief by both uttering X and asserting the truth of X. So long as one believes that X is not true and asserts X, her assertion suffices a lie. (2) The condition “intent to deceive” stipulates that a person can only lie intentionally. As earlier said, lying is about saying something that contradicts to one’s own state of beliefs; it is not possible to lie unintentionally. 

So why is lying wrong?  I have three suggestions – it violates the autonomy of the person lied to; it violates the principle of respect; it violates one’s private right over one’s mind.

 – To have autonomy is for one to have control over various aspects of one’s life. In general, when a person has autonomy, she can choose among various alternatives that are open to her and thereby lead the life she wants. When she is lied to, she is misinformed about certain options in her life and her senses of what she can achieve and of what needs attending to are distorted as a result. It is true that she is still making decisions about how she wants her life to be and is free to implement the choice she makes. Nevertheless, she is in fact doing a less effective job of controlling her life – options that she would have considered if she were not lied to are removed. Accordingly, her control over her life is reduced. A lie certainly interferes with one’s autonomy.

One difficulty with this view is that it is not clear whether telling a lie will always interfere with another’s autonomy. Suppose some stranger lies to me that it was snowing in Toronto yesterday. And suppose all aspects of my life are unrelated to Toronto now and then. It is almost for certain that my autonomy will not be affected upon hearing this lie. And since it is a well-known fact that Toronto does get heavy snowfalls in April, it is unlikely that one particular day of snow will make a difference to my future choice.  So in what sense, regarding my autonomy, has the person who lied to me about snow in Toronto done something wrong? 

– Another reason lying can be wrong is that it violates the principle of respect. The liar produces an effect in me that I do not want to and cannot produce in myself. In a similar way, the liar cannot agree to the very same effect being produced in himself. Regardless of the consequences, his action violates the principle of respect, in the sense that he has set up an exploitative relation that will inflict harm on me. The liar is like a counterfeiter: he issues counterfeit bills, but he does not want the market to be flooded with counterfeit currency and he certainly does not want to get back his own counterfeit bill. The liar unfairly affirms a unilateral principle in respect to another person’s freedom and rationality.

But then one might ask what if the liar does not mind getting back a counterfeit bill?  What if the liar wants to be lied to?  There are certainly many common examples of people wanting to be lied to.  (“No – you look great in that outfit.”)

– Which brings us to the third justification, that lying violates one’s private right over one’s mind. The person who tells a lie wrongfully claims a part of another person’s mind. In normal cases, the kinds of information that are permitted by the owner to lay claim to her mind are the ones that are processed consciously and knowingly by the mind’s owner. And the information that gets processed under this conscious and knowing process cannot be lies. It is logically impossible for one consciously and knowingly to allow a lie to lay claim to one’s mind. For if we consciously know that it is a lie, then it is not a lie anymore. Lying intrudes one’s mind by sneaking in through the back door where the normal conscious and knowing process of information-checking is not present. A lie, such as a white lie, can be extremely useful in bringing about good consequences.  But usefulness does not erase the wrongness of an action – lying can be both useful and wrong. What makes lying wrong is not the content of the information but the way this information has entered the mind. The route the teller has taken to get the information into one’s mind entails the wrongness of their action.  Sneaking in through the back door is what makes lying wrong.



8 responses to “The wrongness of lying

  1. This seems overly complex. Surely the attempt to find reasons about the person lied to misses the point of why we’re angry about lying. Don’t we want to say to the liar “You’re only on the planet once – what the hell are you doing using your ability to find and communicate the truth to spread a pack of lies?” What would you like to say to Marcus Einfield: “You’ve denied my autonomy or respect”, “you’ve violated your right over your own mind”, or “You arrogant bastard, you’ve misused your position to tell a pack of shabby untruths.”

  2. It seems to me you’re contradicting yourself, Jim. Surely what this post does is try to articulate what makes untruths “shabby”, language that you’re relying on.

    I do, however, share the intuition that there’s more to be said about why we’re angry about lying.

  3. I think Jim raises an interesting point of the outrage we feel at being caught on the business end of a lie.

    For an evolutionary perspective, lying is wrong on the ultimate level because it makes social behaviour more difficult by eroding trust.

    Trust is crucial for cooperation to be possible – for cooperation is often vulnerable to free riders. Less trust = less cooperation, with the end result that everyone is worse off.

    Another evolutionary spin on this is that highly cooperative (and highly trusting) groups outcompete less cooperative (and less trusting) groups.

    So evolution has endowed us with a bunch of proximate mechanisms for detecting lies, and making us outraged when we do.

    Notice that none of this speaks of autonomy, respect or rights over the mind. It might *feel* like that’s what lying impacts – but ultimately it’s because lying makes cooperation more difficult.

    Note also that this is entirely descriptive. One would have to make cooperation (or fitness) a cardinal value to use this to justify why lying is wrong – and you need to step outside of evolutionary ethics to do this.

  4. Tim, even if evolution (social evolution?) has caused to develop in us certain intuitions or proximate mechanisms, this is a separate issue from the justification of such mechanisms. To confuse or conflate cause with justification is the “genetic fallacy.”

    Also, I’m not clear why you think being “entirely descriptive” is specifically a strength of your account.

  5. Society, civilisation, everyday life as we know it is dependant on lies and lying to function.

    Furthermore, respect in itself (from your definition) exists within the confines of lies.
    According to your usage of respect, we intrinsically are required to “respect” each others existence. To me, that highlights an inherent worthlessness to respect. Because without some sort of earning of respect, without some sort of measure to test it against and as we automatically assign it to everyone, whether they deserve it or not and therefore it loses any value it can possibly contain.
    So by treating people with respect, you are in fact treating them in a worthless fashion.

    I lie to many people, not to deceive them or curtail their judgement, I lie simply because it makes my life simpler and because they haven’t earned my respect are not worthy of the truths that I see.

    Also because in this life, this world I live for myself and not others sake. Their needs, wants, desires have no implication towards my actions unless those people have warrant my respect of their needs, wants and desires because I put worth in respect and do not simply allot it to everyone, but rather those that deserve it.

    As to how lying violates autonomy is a joke because we do not have autonomy at all. We have a limited set of choices in this world and operate according to our own inherent biasing. Other peoples lies impact in such a minuscule fashion on autonomy that it can be infinitesimal and more importantly, impossible to calculate. So putting any credence in lies impact on autonomy is silly and somewhat a childish argument.

  6. Indeed Andy! But what if there *are* no justifications? What if our propensity to condemn lying is just a psychological mechanism that ultimately aids our genes?

    Doesn’t mean we should stop condemning lying. But it could erode the idea that there are metaphysical justifications or moral truths.

  7. Tim, we accept, nay, demand justifications of other things – beliefs for example. And we don’t think that we can function without them. What makes you think there are no justifications in the moral case? What is your justification, if you will?

  8. you’re both idiots

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